Neither Beginning Nor End

The common cliché to opening a blog has definitely become "leaving _______ was not easy..." so it is with a wide grin and happy heart that I am able to write the next sentence. Leaving Yellowknife was easy. It was August 7th, and well into the 200s for consecutive days on trail. The weather forecasts we were happy to hear but typically ignored on a day to day basis were starting to paint a bleak and unavoidable picture. Conditions were only getting less and less favorable from here on out, and the longest, most remote stretch lay in front of us. But it was not only fear of the tundra fall that drove us. We were excited for the landscape and water to come, and, most of the all, that feeling of an inevitable gratification coming to fruition, delayed since January 2nd on the Gulf of Mexico. We were ready, demonstrated clearly by the lack of reluctance pushing off that windy August afternoon...  

An important distinction to make here is that while it may have been easy to leave from a mental standpoint, physically distancing ourselves from Yellowknife did not go as well. We made it only a few miles from town before the wind, which had continued to build all morning, put an end to the day for paddling. This was not horrible, as some of us were able and interested in ONE last shopping/food excursion and the Delanos were kind enough to track us down once again and drive us around town. A case of Red Bull and some Hawkins Cheezies later, the towngoers returned to the shorebound, with calmer water ready to be paddled around 8 pm. A short night paddle finally cut the cord, and we were officially off for Kugluktuk.

Our route from Yellowknife to the Arctic Ocean involved completing the northern arm of Great Slave Lake and leaving by way of the Marian River, one of two remaining upstream endeavors before the height of land portages over the final divide and then downstream on the Parent and, most anticipated, Coppermine River. Winchell had the distinct pleasure of paddling this route the year prior with the Copper Kids, so we expected things to go pretty smoothly.

And boy did they ever right off the bat! The weather cooperated enough that we were able to sail the majority of our way across the north arm and even Marian Lake before wrapping up the day catching some LUNKERS (colloquially 'big fish') at the first marked rapids on the Marian River. For every picture shown of fish on this blog, there are five just like them, FYI. With that, the last stretch of upstream paddling was well underway.

We found our rhythm quickly. The days upstream on the Marian and Emile rivers were much less work than their predecessors, so the conservative estimate of 20 miles per day upstream went more like 25 or 30. And it only got more beautiful every mile we moved north, each lake claimed to be the clearest yet, only to be usurped by the next ad infinitum (although the unofficial consensus probably went to Boland Lake). By August 13th, we were well over half way done with upstream travel and already far enough ahead of schedule to have a layover day without needing to blame the weather. The single layover day only made us stronger. We traveled the remaining 90 miles upstream in three days before arriving at Lake 321, the typical launching point for a series of six portages that take you across the divide and to downstream travel. No one anticipated starting these portages so early. How were we doing it?!?

We learned shortly thereafter that it was by the weather's good graces alone. On perhaps the smallest body of water of the trip to that point, we were windbound for three straight days. Yes, three straight days. And not only did the wind blow but the rain fell, and not the predictable misting of the dry far north, but heavy, drenching rain that kept all save for the most intrepid camper (or resigned and reluctant cook) tucked well into wig, waiting for it all to end. By the third day, the rain began to recede, but that only made it colder. For the first time, late fall realities were abundantly clear.

Counterintuitively, soreness levels were at an all-time high the morning of August 22nd when we paddled a short distance to begin the portages. Apparently lethargy and atrophy are bosom buddies, and, as Toby Keith reminds us so eloquently by way of song, we're not as good as we once were, but (thank God) we're as good once as we ever were.

And by that I mean to say we showed those portages a thing or two. All said and done, double-portaging accounted for, it came out to about 20 miles in two days before Grenville Lake, the headwaters of the Parent River, and for our purposes, a large tributary of the Coppermine River. To be honest, initial feelings were pretty sour on the old Parent. In the previous year, it had treated the Copper Kids pretty poorly, with low water levels amounting to frequent portaging. However, the wind and the rain we had cursed just days prior were quite the blessing in disguise. We only had a few quick and easy portages between Grenville, Rawalpindi, and Parent lakes, and none (yes, none Copper Kids) between Parent Lake and Red Rock Lake AND poor weather to boot. The three-day-layover debacle was looking more and more like a hiccup rather than the trend.

And Red Rock Lake. What else is there to say? Besides Red Rock Lake. And thank you. And long live the Arctic Fox! What incredible memories. 

The fun was only beginning. From Red Rock Lake, the Parent joins the Coppermine River, and two consecutive days of rapids await the anxious paddler right off the bat. These early rapids retain an alpine feel, as the tundra we had entered only days before quickly retreated near Red Rock Lake, not to reemerge until just miles before the end. After a lot of fun shooting rapids, the Coppermine calms for around 100 miles, an area aptly known as the 'flats.' Our good fortunes still well-intact, we actually got to sail DOWNSTREAM the final day of flat water as we rounded the Big Bend and approached the canyon section, nearly 60 miles of straight class I, II, and III rapids.

At this point, it was August 30th, and the count down was on. The weather took a turn for the worse that night that would set the trend for the rest of the trip, but nothing could shake the spirits of six guys less than 100 miles short of finishing a trip that had lasted then over eight months, spanning an entire continent. Smiles persisted amidst clouds of black flies, laughs were had clad in sopping wet rain gear, and bleak weather reports from Brad Delano far, far away were casually dismissed despite no evidence to the contrary. 

And like that, it was over. The wind could not blow hard enough, nor could the paddler paddle soft enough to keep the Coppermine from moving us quickly towards Kugluktuk. Winchell's work the previous summer paid dividends as well, with only one rapid requiring a scout from land, which meant no time (or heat) lost getting in and out of boats every quarter of a mile. On September 1st, we pulled into Bloody Falls, our last remaining portage of the trip, with only 12 miles left to go. The weather forecast was bad (high near 48 degrees and winds around 20-25 mph out of the east), but no one even suggested changing schedule. We packed-up for the final time, dumped the accumulated rain water out of the boats, and pushed-off, Kugluktuk or bust. Our only pause came at a sandbar on the east side of the final peninsula, and we debated the merit of continuing-on in the wind or portaging into town through the industrial sector. John managed to keep us honest and encouraged the final approach via boat, and, with that, we rounded the last corner and pulled into an empty shoreline on the west side of Kugluktuk. That we were alone, with no welcoming party, hullabaloo or press was actually quite fitting. Despite the glaring discrepancy of our anonymity, the closest comparison would be like Kevin Garnett after the 2008 NBA Finals. 

We sit now in Yellowknife with a couple of days to decompress before the reality of days without paddling truly sink in. We also get to enjoy the incredible hospitality of Ross and Dawn Marie Ashlie, a local couple who epitomize the overwhelming graciousness we have experienced the entire trip.

There are no words or deeds that can encapsulate or return the kindness we have been shown for 246 days. To say thank you falls so short the fingers cramp attempting to do so. But we will do it anyway. Thank you so much to everyone out there who has made this trip into what it is. When we set out so long ago to paddle from the Gulf to the Arctic, we thought we were going on a wilderness adventure with short cultural intervals. Turns out, the trip was mostly about the people we met, relationships we formed, and memories together outside of our crew that mattered most. Can't say we saw that coming. 

In the coming weeks and months, please continue to check back for updates on the documentary and the lives of six dudes post paddling adventure. Hopefully we live up to the hype.